Turkey starts deporting foreign ISIS fighters

Turkey has approximately 800 foreign ISIS members in Turkish prisons and nearly 300 foreign militants in camps in northern Syria.
Sunday 17/11/2019
A man, allegedly a US citizen and an ISIS member, who was deported by Turkish officials and rejected by Greek police, stands in a no man’s land at the border between Turkey and Greece near Pazarkule, November 11. (AFP)
Stuck on border. A man, allegedly a US citizen and an ISIS member, who was deported by Turkish officials and rejected by Greek police, stands in a no man’s land at the border between Turkey and Greece near Pazarkule, November 11. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - In a move that could provoke new tensions with Europe and the United States, Turkey started deporting foreign members of the Islamic State even though their countries of origin are reluctant to take them back.

Turkey said 26 foreign Islamic State (ISIS) extremists, at least 15 of whom were arrested in Syria with the rest detained in Turkey, would be deported. Of the group, 25 are from European countries and one is from the United States.

Turkey’s Western allies have worried that ISIS militants could escape as a result of the latest Turkish offensive in Syria. Turkey accused Western countries, especially in Europe, of being too slow to take back citizens who travelled to the Middle East to fight on behalf of ISIS. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu criticised efforts by European countries, such as Britain and the Netherlands, to strip ISIS members of their citizenship to avoid repatriation of militants, many of whom are considered dangerous.

As late as a week before the start of the deportations, European officials said Turkey had not informed them that citizens of their countries would be sent back. “There is no concrete information by the Turkish side,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said November 4.

Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank in Brussels, said the extraditions could lead to new tensions between Turkey and Europe, whose relations are troubled by Turkish threats to send millions of Syrian refugees to the European Union and European criticism of Turkey’s growing authoritarianism.

“There is potential for this to turn into yet another crisis in EU-Turkey relations,” Paul said by e-mail. “To avoid this it would be opportune at the very least for the EU and Turkey to have a serious dialogue on this issue. Europe should not shirk its responsibility.”

Turkey deported three ISIS suspects — from the United States, Germany and Denmark — on November 11. While the extraditions to Germany and Denmark went smoothly, the deportation of a US citizen of Jordanian descent, identified in news reports as 39-year-old Muhammad Darwis B., hit a snag.

B., arrested by Turkish forces in Syria, was stuck on the land border between Turkey and Greece for three days after the United States refused to have him back. Turkey wanted deport him to Greece but Greek border guards did not allow him in. The Turkish Interior Ministry said deportation procedures for B. had started November 14 after the United States had accepted him.

A family of seven was sent from Istanbul to Germany and a British ISIS suspect was flown to London. Two Irish nationals, two other Germans and 11 French citizens would be sent back from Syria, Ankara said.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified. The process of repatriating foreign fighters to their countries will continue with determination,” Turkey’s Interior Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli was cited as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey country held around 1,200 ISIS members from 40 countries in Turkish prisons and nearly 300 foreign militants in camps in northern Syria.

Turkey began an offensive in north-eastern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia on October 9, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to move US troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a key US ally against ISIS, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across north-eastern Syria and has overseen camps where relatives of fighters sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted widespread concern over the fate of the prisoners. Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against ISIS and aid its resurgence. Turkey rejected those concerns and vowed to combat ISIS with its allies. Ankara accuses the YPG of freeing around 750 ISIS members from prisons under the militia’s watch.

Cracks among the global coalition against ISIS became apparent November 14 when foreign ministers of the group convened in Washington.

“No one should expect the United States or anyone else to solve this problem for them,” Nathan Sales, US coordinator for counterterrorism, told a briefing at the US State Department.

Washington wants fighters sent back to their home countries and either prosecuted or rehabilitated there. While accepting the relatively few ISIS suspects from Turkish prisons and detention centres in Syria, EU countries are much more reluctant when it comes to the thousands of jihadis being guarded by the SDF. Europe does not want to try its ISIS nationals at home, citing the difficulty in collecting evidence as well as concerns about a public backlash and the risk of attacks on European soil.

“Our view is that it is not a feasible option… to ask other countries in the region to import another country’s foreign fighters and pursue prosecution and incarceration there,” Sales said.

His comments clearly were directed at France, which opened talks with Iraq about trying foreign nationals.

After the meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian repeated the French stance that fighters “should be brought to justice as close (as possible) to the crimes they committed” — code for not bringing them home.